McMurdo looms large in the sight and minds of those spending their ice time at Scott Base. Every aspect of life in this little green box is affected by the big, noisy brother just over the hill. Without the enormous airlift and shipping capacity of the American operation, the Kiwi presence in Antarctica would be impossible at its current site and scale.
Scott Base has to play ball or be reduced to a single pin-eyed loner taking Dobson measurements and rooting penguins on a five year rotation. To maintain friendly relations, Kiwis learn to drive on the right, let the Americans come for drinks on Thursdays, and throw their dodgeball matches.
To stand on Obs Hill and look at the two bases it becomes obvious that McMurdo has been pieced together over successive generations of engineering technology, largely pinched from high latitude mining projects in the north, whereas Scott Base, in its modern form, has been designed with McMurdo’s problems in mind. Most of the original Scott Base was removed and replaced as new building techniques came to the fore.
One base is dirty, ugly and sprawling, the other is clean, uniform and compact. Scott Base still looks like an abattoir, but a shiny new one rather than a rusting, steam powered anachronism. Regular dustings of snow from the south add to the illusion that Scott is clean. The same airborne Tippex seems to give McMurdo a miss, keeping the ugly out in the open.
The greatest advantage of Scott Base’s small, connected environment is that occupants can reach any point without having to go outdoors. An additional bonus is that there need be no powerlines cutting up the sky, a striking feature of McMurdo’s visual landscape. The downside is that if any part of Scott base catches fire, the whole lot may burn, leaving up to eighty chagrined Kiwis knocking on the door of Hotel California.
Visiting McMurdo for sport, gigs, parties, or to skua vital spare parts to keep the science going, is great for our morale. It gets us out of our box, we meet new people and eat ice cream. It’s easy for blue ECWs to be lost in a sea of red, and no one cares if a Kiwi goes up for a third serve of pizza during midrats. The reciprocal: meals for Americans in the Scott Base canteen are by invite only. Such invites can be used by unscrupulous Kiwis to garner all manner of favours. I think it’s because the food is prepared on a tenth the scale that it’s an order of magnitude better than that available in the McMurdo Galley.
Americans are great: friendly, generous people. It is surprising, for someone who has been dreaming of Antarctica since early childhood, to find so many of them so bitter about their lives at McMurdo. Then you visit their accommodation blocks, read their OSHA regulations, and hear how rare is a day trip to Cape Evans for the average Raytheon employee, and it starts to make sense. Doctoral candidates working as dishwashers cry tears of joy when invited to Scott Base for a feed and a quick look at the pressure ridges.
The ratio of scientists to support staff is much higher in the Kiwi programme, as Scott Base doesn’t have to keep the runways open and act as supply depot to the Pole. A journalist who stayed with us returned to New Zealand professing that everyone at Scott Base was at the top of their game. This is mostly true, but as New Zealand is a very small place, some games have very few players, and plenty of jerks have managed to rise to prominence in Antarctica New Zealand. A key position in an annual science project has required an antipodean version of Boozy the Clown (without the costume and mitigating alter ego) be foisted upon base staff.
Kiwi paranoia is well honed. After two hundred years of living in the sporting and economic shadow of Australia’s domination of the region, having rich and noisy neighbours is nothing new to us, so we are able to get on with our tasks with a minimum of diesel envy.
As with New Zealand itself, the clean, green appearance of Scott Base is perhaps as much a function of scale as practise (and green paint). If any nation tried to establish a thousand person toehold in the cold, it would necessarily be an ugly, beauracratic blot on the landscape, but McMurdo has, through it’s relatively long and varied history, turned out so deeply unappealing that I stand amazed at the number of long term returnees.